Water & Drought

January 31, 2014

California triggers emergency water cutbacks due to drought

Facing the driest year on record, state authorities Friday issued emergency orders to save California from running dry this summer, including a temporary halt to Northern California water exports to San Joaquin Valley farming.

The time has come to protect drinking water and wisely divide the little water left in the state's reservoirs among cities, farms and nature, said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

The weather is so dry that there have been 400 wildfires statewide in January, compared to zero last year.

"We're not in a developing crisis," he said. "This is a current crisis. Everyone will get less water this year."

The state's unprecedented actions, which will begin today, also trim back protective water releases for fish from northern reservoirs. Water leaders expect to save about 144,000 acre-feet of water in February.

The water could be used in the heat of the summer to prevent Pacific Ocean salt from invading the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and fouling the water supply for 25 million Californians, officials said.

The need for the cutbacks will be carefully monitored throughout February, authorities said. If conditions change, such as rain storms developing the emergency measures could be tempered, and more water might become available for water quality and farming.

About 1,000 square miles of farming -- much of it in the Valley -- will be affected by the cutbacks. Right now water pumping from the south delta is limited to the needs of cities.

Authorities also announced State Water Project customers, the largest of which are Southern California and Kern County farmers, are projected to receive a zero allocation. The state had earlier forecast deliveries of 5% this year.

Though the federal Central Valley Project water forecast is not expected until mid- to late February, most Valley farm water officials say they anticipate a zero allocation, as well.

Farmers in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, mostly in west Fresno County, have been preparing for a zero allocation for months. Westlands is part of the Los Banos-based San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents many farm districts.

"This is a very serious situation," said authority executive director Dan Nelson. "Of course, it is the result of an extreme drought. But our problems are also a result of the way environmental regulation has been imposed on water projects over many years. We're in the worst possible position for this kind of dry season."

State water authorities noted the Sierra snowpack is less than 15% of average for this time of year, and more than half of the precipitation season has passed. Reservoirs are as low as they were in the severe drought of 1977.

Along the east side of the Valley, the drought probably will also result in a zero allocation of water from Millerton Lake on the Central Valley Project. In addition to 15,000 growers, several small communities -- Orange Cove, Lindsay, Strathmore and Terra Bella -- buy their drinking water from Millerton.

Authorities are working with local water leaders to figure out how to provide water for the communities. An announcement is anticipated soon.

Orange Cove on Friday passed an emergency ordinance that forbids outdoor water use among its 10,000 residents and mandates repairs to leaks and breaks in plumbing. It's the kind of action expected in many parts of California.

Addressing historic, bitter arguments among cities, farmers and environmentalists over water, Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said all water users must pull together this year.

"We will have to collaborate our way through this," she said. "We must call on our humanity."

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